ASTROS HOT STOVE

How the Astros most challenging offseason obstacle is a matter of philosophy

Free agents may not get the playing time they want if they sign with Houston. Composite image by Jack Brame.

As the free agency period continues in Major League Baseball, the Houston Astros have seen targets, such as Willson Contreras and now former team catcher Christian Vázquez sign with different teams leaving the reigning champions with voids to fill.

During the team’s introductory press conference for first baseman José Abreu, owner Jim Crane said outfield and catcher were two areas Houston was looking to improve in. Since then, not only have the Astros lost out on key targets, but they have actually seen the catcher position thin out, not only with the loss of Vázquez, but the retirement of Jason Castro as well.

According to reports around the league, there are various players that could be on the trading block, which is another way for the Houston Astros to improve. In particular, a name that has been linked with Houston is Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Daulton Varsho.

Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported that the Astros and Arizona Diamondbacks have engaged in trade talks about Varsho, but the asking price remains steep.

The question for the Astros is how steep is too steep? It is clear that Crane’s mindset is to compete for another World Series Championship in 2023.

Would Houston be willing to part with one of its young key players, such as pitchers Hunter Brown or Cristian Javier, or even the unthinkable, Jeremy Peña? Probably not. Would Houston be able to sell to Arizona a package not centered around at least one of those key pieces? Who knows.

How aggressive Houston is all depends on how big the ownership and those making the decisions in the front office believe the void is in the outfield and at catcher.

Varsho’s numbers in 2022 were .235/.302/.443 with 27 home runs. As the two sides continue to negotiate, one thing has become clear, Houston is not as confident that it has a Peña-level player waiting in its farm system to plug in and play at those positions in 2023.

When Carlos Correa left for Minnesota last season, the Astros went to Peña without much of a second thought in regard to the shortstop position. That has not been the case with Houston this offseason, at least when factoring the reports.

Houston has Yainer Diaz and Korey Lee as other catchers on the payroll for 2023. The Astros also have Jake Meyers, Chas McCormick and Kyle Tucker as designated outfield players. Houston fans know that Dusty Baker will also move Yordan Alvarez into left field as well.

While Meyers and McCormick have been around the Astros and made plays for the team, especially McCormick’s epic World Series Game Five catch, they are far from irreplaceable.

The same can be said for catcher. Diaz’ numbers in the minors in 2022 were .306/.356/.542 while in six games in the majors they fell to .125/.222/.250. For Lee it was .238/.307/.483 in the minors and .160/.192/.240 in 12 games for the Astros in the majors during the 2022 season.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle, specifically at catcher, for free agents is Baker’s management philosophy. The skipper values the defense and leadership of Martin Maldonaldo, and any catcher that signed with Houston would have to split reps with the veteran catcher.

Former San Diego Padres catcher Jorge Alfaro remains a free agent that Houston could pursue while the group in the outfield position has thinned.

According to USA Today, the Toronto Blue Jays are willing to move one of their three catchers in Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk and Gabriel Moreno. Toronto could be another option for Houston to trade with.

Once again, how aggressive the Astros are, will depend on how big of a void Crane and the front office believe there is on the roster.

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Good news for Jose Altuve. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images.

One never knows how things will play out but of the known General Manager candidates, Jim Crane nailed it in hiring Dana Brown out of the Atlanta Braves' organization where he was Vice President of Scouting. The 55-year-old Brown's scouting and development pedigree is stellar. The Braves have been a talent-producing machine in recent years. Obviously all the credit isn't Brown's but his four years with the Braves preceded by a productive pipeline he was part of in Toronto speak highly of him. Not that it was or should have been the guiding principle to Crane's decision-making, but the Astros now have the only African-American General Manager in Major League Baseball (Ken Williams is Executive Vice President of the Chicago White Sox).

Brad Ausmus is a super-smart guy, but if had he gotten the GM gig it would have been in large part because he was teammate besties with Jeff Bagwell. While “It's not what you know it's who you know” plays a role in many, many hires, it would have been a poor rationale for tabbing Ausmus. Maybe Ausmus would have done a great job. Maybe Brown does a lousy job. Brown was the much more strongly credentialed candidate. While Bagwell has moved way up Crane's confidante list, Brown played college baseball with Craig Biggio at Seton Hall.

Speaking of Halls…

If I could tell you as absolute fact that exactly two members of the 2023 Houston Astros will someday make the Baseball Hall of Fame, who are you picking? Jose Altuve isn’t a lock just yet but he is obvious pick number one. So for the second spot are you going with Alex Bregman or Yordan Alvarez? We’ll get back to this a couple of paragraphs down.

As was basically a given, former Astro (and Phillie, Met, Red Sox, and Brave) Billy Wagner was not elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this week, but as I suggested last week the voting returns were very favorable toward Wagner making the Hall next year, or if not next year in his final year of eligibility on the Baseball Writers Association ballot for the Class of 2025. “Wags” in the Class of ’24 is looking good. Wagner jumped from 51 percent to 68 percent “put him in” votes. The only guy this year to get the necessary 75 percent for election is worthy third baseman Scott Rolen. Two years ago Rolen got 53 percent of the votes needed, last year 63 percent, before getting the call to Cooperstown with 76.5 percent this year. Wagner going from 51 to 68 to 75-plus looks likely. Of course it’s not as if Wagner can pad his case with a good 2023 season, but this is how the process works. The other ballot returnee well positioned to make it next year is former Colorado first baseman Todd Helton. Unlike this year there’s a sure-fire first time ballot guy going in next year. Third baseman Adrian Beltre will undoubtedly wear a Texas Rangers cap on his plaque.

As expected Carlos Beltran didn’t come close to election in his first year of eligibility, but drawing 46 percent of the votes sets him up well to eventually get the Cooperstown call. Beltran was a fabulous player and his Hall credentials are solid. However, no one reasonable would argue that Carlos Beltran was as good or better than Barry Bonds. In his first year of eligibility back in 2013 Bonds garnered 36 percent of the vote. There has been some turnover in the voter pool over the last decade, but it's clear that Beltran’s central role in the Astros’ sign stealing scheme was not held against him to the extent that PED use (actual and/or suspected) was held against Bonds and Roger Clemens. And Alex Rodriguez. And Sammy Sosa. And Manny Ramirez. And others. Foremost right now that’s encouraging for Beltran, but it’s also encouraging down the line for fellow Astros of 2017-18.

What does this mean for Jose Altuve?

If Jose Altuve retired today (perish the thought!) he’d have a good case for the Hall. He had superstar seasons in 2016, 2017, and 2022, and has five other seasons that while not in the realm of his three best certainly rate as excellent. If you judge a player by his five best seasons, there aren’t 10 second basemen in the history of the sport who’d rank ahead of Altuve. Among those who clearly would: Joe Morgan, Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, and Nap Lajoie. Among those four only Morgan played more recently than 1937. Then there’s a group of arguable guys like Jackie Robinson, Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, and yes Craig Biggio. Altuve has had the prime of a Hall of Famer. What sort of final numbers will he accrue? In late May or early June he should reach the 2000 hit plateau. How many more prime years does Altuve have left before inevitable decline? His career batting average is .307. Four years ago it was .316. Will Altuve retire a .300 hitter?

Bregman or Alvarez? Bregman gets extra points for being an everyday third baseman as opposed to a left fielder-designated hitter, but by age alone Yordan is the better play. Bregman turns 29 on opening day this year. Yordan doesn’t turn 26 until late June. When Bregman was 25 (2019 season) he put up a season more valuable than Alvarez’s tremendous 2022. In the three years since Bregman hasn’t approached that level, though his big second half last season could be a springboard back to that stratosphere. Yordan is in that stratosphere and figures to stay there for a while if his health holds up.

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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it airs live at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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